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Authors: Mbue,Imbolo

Tags: #FIC000000 Fiction / General

Behold the Dreamers (4 page)

BOOK: Behold the Dreamers

sponding promptly to his greeting every time he held the car door open for her; asking, albeit disinterestedly, how his day was going; saying please and thank you as often as she needed to), and yet whenever she was in the car, he stiffened up. Was he breathing too loudly? Driving five miles per hour too fast or too slow? Had he cleaned the backseat well enough so a lingering speck of dust wouldn't dirty her pantsuit? He knew she'd have to be a precision-obsessed woman with the sensitivity of a champion watchdog to notice such minor transgressions, but that wasn't enough to allow him to sit at ease—he was still new at the job and thus had to be perfect. Thankfully, she was on her cell phone most days, like the Tuesday two weeks after he began driving her and her family. That afternoon, upon reentering the car in front of a restaurant near Union Square, she had immediately gotten on her phone. “Vince won't be coming to Aspen,” she'd said slowly and sadly, almost in shock, as if reading aloud the headline of a bizarrely tragic news story from the paper.

Two hours earlier, a much happier Cindy had exited the car, and it had been clear to Jende that the young man she was meeting in front of the restaurant was her son Vince—he was a replica of his father, bearing the same six-foot frame, slender build, and wavy hair. Cindy had all but sprinted out of the car to get to him, to hug him and stroke his cheeks and give him three kisses. It seemed she hadn't seen him in months, which, based on what Mighty had said, was entirely likely. For minutes they had stood on the sidewalk chatting, Vince rubbing his hands and moving them in and out of his blue Columbia hoodie, Cindy motioning toward Union Square Park and smiling broadly, as if reminding Vince of a special moment they'd once shared there.

“I just had lunch with him,” she went on. “He didn't say why … No, he says he's definitely not coming … I said he said he's not coming!… He's going to some silent retreat in Costa Rica, something about his Spirit badly needing to get away from the noise … What do you mean it's okay? Don't tell me it's okay, Clark. Your son's deciding to not spend the holidays with his family and you're telling me it's fine?… No, I don't expect you to do anything. I know there's nothing you can do … I know there's nothing I can do, but doesn't it bother you? I mean, do you not care how he has no sense of family? He doesn't come for Mighty's birthday, doesn't even care to ask me before deciding to go away for Christmas … I'm not rescheduling it … Sure, it might all be for the best. You're now free to work on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and,why don't you just work nonstop till next year?… Don't tell me I'm being ridiculous!… If you cared more, Clark, just a little bit more, about how the boys are doing, if they're happy … I don't want you to do anything else, because you're incapable of looking past yourself and putting the needs of others above yours … Yeah, of course, but someday you're going to have to realize that you can't keep on doing what you're doing and hope that somehow, by chance, the kids are going to be all right. It doesn't work like that … It'll
work like that.”

Jende heard her toss her phone onto the seat. For a minute the car was silent except for the sound of her heavy breathing.

“Are you coming to Mighty's recital?” she said after picking up the phone and apparently calling her husband again. “Yes, call me right back, please … I need to know ASAP.”

His hands firmly at the nine and three o'clock positions—as he'd been taught to drive in Cameroon—Jende made a turn onto Madison Avenue. The sun had already left the city on the frigid late afternoon, but Manhattan shone brightly as always and, beneath its streetlamps and in the white lights spilling from glowing stores, he saw faces of many colors going north and south at varied speeds. Some along the crowded avenue looked happy, some looked sad, but none seemed to be as sad as Cindy Edwards at that moment. Her voice was so drenched in agony Jende wished someone would call her with good news, funny news, any kind of news to make her smile.

Her phone rang, and she promptly picked it up.

“What do you mean you'll make it up to him?” she shouted. “You promised him you'd be at the recital! You can't keep telling a child … I don't care what's going on at Lehman! I don't care how awful things might get if Lehman doesn't … And what about the Accordion Gala? I need to RSVP by the end of the week … Oh, no, please go on the trip, Clark. Just …”

She tossed the phone aside again and sat with her left elbow against the car door, resting her head in her hand. She sat like that for minutes, and Jende thought he heard the sniff of a downcast woman fighting back tears.

Somewhere in the East Forties, she picked up the phone again.

“Hey, Cheri, it's me,” she said after the voicemail prompt, her voice placid but the anguish therein still evident. “Just calling, nothing much. I finally got the tickets, so we're good. Call me back if you're free. I should be home in about … Never mind, you don't need to call me back. I'm good, just having a real crappy day. You're probably still out with your clients … Oh well. By the way, let me know if you'd like some company when you go visit your mom next week, okay? I'll be glad to come with you.”

She dialed another number, and this time the person appeared to pick up.

“Are you home?” she asked. “Oh, right, I forgot … Yeah, we can talk later. Tell Mike I say hello … Nothing … I mean nothing new, just the same old things. I'm just so upset, and on top of everything else that's going on … No, no, I'm sorry, please go … No, you don't have to call me back tonight … Yes, really, I'm fine … I'll be fine, June, promise. Go. Have fun.”

For the remaining ten minutes of the ride she made no phone calls. She sat quietly, looking out the window, watching happy people marching up and down Madison.


than halfway back from Washington, D.C., cruising toward New Jersey with turnpike signs appearing every few miles.

“Tell me about Limbe,” Clark said. “I want to hear about this place where you grew up.”

Jende smiled. “Oh, sir,” he said, his voice rising with nostalgia, “Limbe is such a nice town. You have to go there one day, sir. In fact, sir, you really must go. When you go, you will see a sign welcoming you as you enter. The sign is special, sir. I have never seen a sign like that welcome anybody to any place before. You see it just as you are coming down the road on the way from Douala, after you pass Mile Four. Nobody can miss it above their heads. It is there in big letters, supported by two iron red pillars, going from one side of the road to the other side. It says ‘Welcome to Limbe, The Town of Friendship.' When you see that sign, sir, ah! No matter who you are, whether you are coming to Limbe just for one day or to stay for ten years, whether you are big or small, you will feel happy that you have made it to Limbe. You will smell the ocean breeze coming from plenty of miles away to salute you. That sweet breeze. It will make you feel like, truly, there is no place in the world like this town by the ocean called Limbe.”

“Interesting,” Clark said, closing his laptop.

“It is, sir,” Jende replied, eager to tell more. He knew Mr. Edwards was open to hearing more. After three months of driving around together, he'd come to realize that whenever the boss needed a short break from his computer or his phone or the papers scattered on the backseat, he asked him questions about his childhood, his life in Harlem, his weekend plans with his wife.

“And then after the welcome sign, sir,” he continued, “as you pass through Mile Two, you will see the lights of the town at night as they are shining all around you. The lights are not too bright or too many. They are just enough to say that this is a town made of magic, an OPEC city, national refinery on one side of the shore, fishermen with their nets on the other side. Then when you enter Mile One, sir, you begin to really feel Limbe proper. It's something else, sir.”

“Sounds like it.”

“Ah, yes, sir. Limbe is very special, Mr. Edwards. In Limbe, we live simple lives, but we enjoy our lives well. You will see it when you visit, sir. As you keep on driving through Mile One, you will see young men buying grilled corn on street corners and old men playing draughts. The young women have all kinds of fake hair weaved into their hair. Some of them look like
mami wata,
those mermaids in the ocean. The older women tie two
one on top of the other. That is how mature women like to dress. Soon after, you will be at Half Mile Junction. There, you will have to decide whether to turn right, toward Bota and the plantations; left, toward New Town, where I am from; or continue straight, toward Down Beach, where you will see the Atlantic Ocean.”

“Fascinating,” Clark said, reopening his laptop.

“I swear to you, sir, it is the best town in Africa. Even Vince says it's the type of town he wants to live in.”

“Of course he did,” Clark said. He looked up at Jende in the rearview mirror. “When did he say this?”

“Two nights ago, sir. When I was driving him back uptown after dinner.”

“What dinner?”

“He was home to have dinner with Mighty and Mrs. Edwards, sir.”

“Right,” Clark said. He moved his laptop to his left and picked up a folder of documents held together by jumbo paper clips.

“He's a very funny guy, Vince,” Jende said, smiling. “He thinks Obama is not going to do anything about—”

“So why are you here?”

“I am sorry, sir?”

“Why did you come to America if your town is so beautiful?”

Jende laughed, a brief uneasy laugh. “But sir,” he said. “America is America.”

“I don't know what that's supposed to mean.”

“Everyone wants to come to America, sir. Everyone. To be in this country, sir. To live in this country. Ah! It is the greatest thing in the world, Mr. Edwards.”

“That still doesn't tell me why you're here.”

Jende thought for a second; he thought about what to say without saying too much. “Because my country is no good, sir,” he said. “It is nothing like America. I stay in my country, I would have become nothing. I would have remained nothing. My son will grow up and be poor like me, just like I was poor like my father. But in America, sir? I can become something. I can even become a respectable man. My son can become a respectable man.”

“And that could never happen in your country?”

“Never, Mr. Edwards.”

“Why?” Clark asked, picking up his buzzing phone. Jende waited for him to finish his conversation, a ten-second discussion during which he only said, “Yes … No … No, I don't think he should be fired for that.” The phone buzzed again and he told whoever was on the line to call HR and tell them he was going to take care of it. He hung up and asked Jende to continue.

“Because … because in my country, sir,” Jende said, his voice ten decibels lower, far less unbound and animated than it had been before he heard that someone was in danger of being fired, “for you to become somebody, you have to be born somebody first. You do not come from a family with money, forget it. You do not come from a family with a name, forget it. That is just how it is, sir. Someone like me, what can I ever become in a country like Cameroon? I came from nothing. No name. No money. My father is a poor man. Cameroon has nothing—”

“And you think America has something for you?”

“Ah, yes, sir, very much, sir!” he said, his voice escalating once more. “America has something for everyone, sir. Look at Obama, sir. Who is his mother? Who is his father? They are not big people in the government. They are not governors or senators. In fact, sir, I hear they are dead. And look at Obama today. The man is a black man with no father or mother, trying to be president over a country!”

Clark did not respond, picking up his buzzing phone instead. “Yeah, I saw his email,” he said to the person on the line. “Why?… I don't know what to say. I'm not sure what Tom's thinking … No, Phil, no! I completely disagree. We can't keep on doing the same things and expect that the results will be different … Right, let's stick with the strategy, even though for three years we've been making one poor choice after another. I mean, the level of shortsightedness here …” He scoffed and shook his head. “I've spoken up as much as I can … No, I won't … What baffles me is how no one else, I mean no one, except for maybe Andy, sees how ridiculous it is that we've been doing the same things over and over and expecting that somehow we'll survive. We've got to change course. Now. Completely rethink our strategy … Repo 105 isn't going to keep us keep us sailing forever … I don't believe that will, either, and I've told Tom that … Everyone's in denial! I don't get how no one's thinking about the fact that superficial short-term fixes are only going to come back to haunt us … Of course they will … How? Are you really asking me that? Have you thought for a second about the fact that everything's on the line if this shit blows up? Our lives, our careers, our families, reputations … Trust me, it will. And I can guarantee you that the feds will be ready to hang Tom the way they hung Skilling, and the rest of us …”

For a few seconds he said nothing, listening to his colleague. “You think it's going to be that nice and clean, huh?” he said. “Somehow everyone's just going to walk away nice and clean from the burning building … No! How long we've been at it isn't going to mean anything pretty soon. Hell, it doesn't mean anything right now, Phil. We're drowning.”

He took a deep breath as he listened again, then laughed.

“Fine,” he said. “I could use that. Maybe one round. Haven't been on a course in a while … No, save that for yourself; one round of golf sometime soon will be enough … No, thank you very much, Phil. Not my cup of tea … Yes, I promise—I'm going to desperately beg you for her number as soon as I find myself on the verge of an explosion.”

He hung up, reopened his laptop smiling and shaking his head, and began typing. After thirty minutes of silence, he put his laptop aside and made three phone calls: to his secretary; to a person named Roger about the report he hadn't yet received; to someone else, to whom he spoke in surprisingly good French.

“Always fun getting a chance to practice my French with the team in Paris,” he said after he'd hung up.

“It is very good French, Mr. Edwards,” Jende said. “You lived in Paris?”

“Yeah, for one year, while I was studying at Stanford.”

Jende nodded but did not reply.

“It's a college,” Clark said. “In California.”

“Ah, Stanford! I remember them now, sir. They play good football. But I have never been to California. Is that where you are from, sir?”

“No, my parents retired there. I grew up in Illinois. Evanston. My dad was a professor at Northwestern, another college.”

“My cousin Winston, sir, when he first came to America, he lived in Illinois for a few months, but he called us all the time saying he was ready to leave because of the cold. I think that is why he joined the army, so that he could move to a warm place.”

“I don't see the logic there,” Clark said, chuckling, “but yes, it's very cold. I can't tell you Evanston's anything as wonderful as your Limbe, but we had a great childhood there, my sister, Ceci, and I. Riding our bikes around the block with the other neighborhood kids, going with Dad downtown to Chicago, to museums and concerts, picnicking by the lake; it was a really wonderful place to be a kid. Ceci's thinking she might move back there one day.”

“Oh, yes, your sister, sir. I did not know you are a twin. It was only a few days ago that Mighty told me your sister is your twin sister. I really like twins, sir. In fact, if God gives me one—”

“Speaking of which, I need to check up on her,” Clark said as he pressed a few keys on his phone. “Hey, it's me,” he said after the voicemail greeting. “Sorry I didn't call back last week. Ridiculously busy at work, so much going on. Anyway, I spoke to Mom last night, and she told me you and the girls aren't coming to Mexico? Cec, listen. Put everything on my credit card. Okay? I'm sorry if I haven't made it clear enough, but I want you to put everything you can't afford on that credit card. Everything. The flight, the hotel, the rental car, Keila's braces, whatever you need, just put it on the card. You know how much all of us being there means to them. It's Dad's eightieth, Cec. And I want to see the girls. It's been so crazy at work, I'm barely breathing, but I'll try to pick up the next time you call. Or email. You know email or text is always better for me.”

He threw his head back after hanging up, his eyes closed.

“So, you didn't have a job back home?” he asked Jende, opening his eyes and picking up his laptop.

“Oh, no, sir, I had a job,” Jende replied. “I worked for the Limbe Urban Council.”

“And it wasn't a good job?”

Jende laughed, taken aback by Clark's question, which he found naïve. “Sir,” he said, “there is no good or bad job in my country.”


“Because any job is a good job in Cameroon, Mr. Edwards. Just to have somewhere that you can wake up in the morning and go to is a good thing. But what about the future? That is the problem, sir. I could not even marry my wife. I did—”

“What do you mean, you couldn't marry? Poor people get married every day.”

“Yes, they can, sir. Everyone can marry, sir. But not everyone can marry the person that they want. My wife's father, Mr. Edwards, he is a greedy man. He refused for me to marry his daughter because he wanted my wife to marry someone with more money. Someone who can give him money whenever he asks for it. But I didn't have. What was I supposed to do?”

Clark snickered. “I guess people don't elope in Cameroon, huh?”

“A rope, sir?”

“No, elope. You know, when you run away and get married without involving your crazy family?”

“Oh, no, no, no, sir, we do it. People do it. We also do
‘come we stay.'
Which means a man says to a woman, ‘Come let us live together,' but he does not marry her first. But I could never do that, sir. Never.”


“It does not show respect for a woman, sir. A man has to go to a woman's family and pay bride-price for her head, sir. And then take her out through the front door. I had to show I am a real man, sir. Not take her for free as if she is … as if she is something I picked on the street.”

“Right,” Clark said, snickering again. “So you've paid for your wife?”

“Oh, yes, sir,” Jende said, beaming with pride. “Once I come to America and send my father-in-law a nice transfer through Western Union, he sees that maybe I am going to be a rich man one day, he changed his mind.”

Clark laughed.

“I know it is funny, sir. But I had to get my wife. By two years after I came to New York, I had saved good money to pay the bride-price and bring her and my son over here. I sent money to my mother and father, and they bought everything my father-in-law wanted as the bride-price. The goats. The pigs. The chickens. The palm oil, bags of rice. The salt. The cloth, bottles of wine. They bought it all. I even give an envelope of cash double what he asked for, sir.”

“No kidding.”

“No, sir. Before my wife comes to America, my family goes to her family, and they hand the bride-price and sing and dance together. And then we were married.”

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